According to the new election system for local government being proposed by the ruling People’s Partnership, a political party which got 44 per cent of all votes would have just one more seat than two other parties which received 30 per cent and 26 per cent of votes respectively. This was the calculation given in the Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which was debated in Parliament last Friday.
Political Leader of the United National Congress (UNC) Kamla Persad-Bissessar has said this new system, where council-
lors will be elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP) but aldermen appointed by propor-
tional representation (PR), will “strengthen our democracy and allow the electorate greater control over those who are put forward to serve as both councillors and aldermen by ensuring that every vote will now count...”
Political analyst and author Dr Kirk Meighoo disagrees.
“You cannot ‘strengthen our democracy’ by pushing through surprise legislation touching on constitution reform, with only your own party members supporting it,” he told the Sunday Express. “This is in fact the opposite of democracy.”
Political analyst and consultant Derek Ramsamooj considers the move laudable, however. “The appointment of aldermen is a small but right step in the process of strengthening our representation process within our governance structure,” he says. “However the incrementalist approach should be reconsidered and a comprehensive review should have been publicly debated, discussing the election process of the positions of mayor or chairman of regional corporations, the senators in central government and other Members of Parliament.”
Under the existing act, councillors are elected by majority vote (one for each electoral district) and the councillors then elect the aldermen. The amendment removes this process and instead ensures aldermen are allocated to a total of four seats for each city, borough and corporation. Box 1 below shows the number of posts.
Asked what the UNC’s political strategy was in introducing this amendment now, Ramsamooj suggested, “This is the political litmus test before applying proportional representation to central government.” Meighoo, who is also the executive president of the Democratic National Assembly (DNA) party, said, “We can only speculate on what their political strategy is, but it seems to be diversionary. Even if both Houses of Parliament pass the legislation before the local government elections, the law may not be proclaimed by the President in time for the elections.”
Section 65 of the act, which remains unchanged, states, “A quorum at meetings of a Council or of any of its Committees shall be constituted by fifty per cent of the membership of the Council or of the Committee,” and Section 67 (1) says, “All acts of a Council, and all questions coming or arising before a Council shall, unless otherwise prescribed by this or any other written law, be done and decided by the majority of such members of the Council.”
This means that the aldermen from the losing party will now have a greater say in decisions, particularly where a two-thirds majority is required.
But is PR more likely than FPTP to create weak or dictatorial governments? “The experience of governments around the world in the 20th century does not show PR to produce weaker governments than first-past-the-post systems, which are basically confined to the English-speaking world,” Meighoo said.
American writer William Poundstone, in Gaming the Vote, writes: “The best argument for proportional representation is ethical. The laws that legislatures pass are binding on everyone. We can’t guarantee that every small faction gets its way, of course. We can guarantee that every substantial group has a voice in the legislative debate.... Proportional representation strives to reproduce the diversity and contradiction of the electorate on the smaller scale of the legislature.”
Poundstone’s book is about how different voting systems may or may not represent the will of voters. (Box 2 at right summarises some of these systems.)
The amended act being proposed by the Government sticks to the one-person-one-vote formula for PR, but this is not the most democratic approach. The American economist Kenneth Arrow, in 1972, became the youngest person (at 51 years) to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his “impossibility theorem”, which mathematically proved that a perfect voting system is impossible once there are three or more candidates contesting an election. PR requires STV or cumulative voting (see Box 2) in order to achieve its aim of equitable representation, but the bill makes no mention of this,
In his book The Logic of Political Survival, political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says: “FPTP parliamentary systems...require a winning coalition equal to only about one-quarter or less of the selectorate [the persons who choose a leader]. If such a system has only two political parties and the prime minister requires support from half the legislators in order to remain in power, and each legislator needs approximately a simple majority to be elected, then the prime minister needs support from one-half of the legislators, each of whom needed support from one-half of his or her constituents to be elected.” Mesquita notes, “In many proportional representation systems, the size of the winning coalition can be even smaller.”
The 1990 Hyatali Report on electoral reform raised a similar concern. “Those who oppose proportional representation maintain that it tends to spawn a multiplicity of parties of convenience, as well as to encourage polarisation in the society and even divisiveness along racial lines, and may even create it where it does not exist,” the report says.
But, in Democracy and Constitution Reform in T&T, Meighoo and his co-author, High Court judge Peter Jamadar, argue that people have confused proportional representation and proportionate representation. In the latter, seats are reserved according to group affiliation, this usually being ethnicity. “Let us be clear: proportional representation as an electoral system has nothing to do with ethnic reservations or allocations to protect minorities,” they write, adding, “in our context, PR will likely reduce the artificial strength of the ethnically extreme parties in our politics”.
Meighoo and Jamadar have also included a useful counter-factual, analysing election results between 1946 to 2002 to show how outcomes would have been different under PR. As it turns out, T&T’s political history would have been pretty much the same. The main differences would have been that in the 1976 general election, the Tapia House group, headed by the late Lloyd Best, would have gotten one seat, and in 1981, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) would also have been allocated one seat while the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR), headed by Karl Hudson-Phillips, would have won eight seats.
Nonetheless, the authors assert that PR shows “a slightly higher quality of democracy and freedom”. The difference is indeed slight: 41 per cent of countries listed as “free” by Freedom House use PR while 30 per cent use FPTP; and 36 per cent of the “not-free” nations use FPTP as compared to 21 per cent which use PR. It therefore seems that neither PR nor FPTP are the overriding factors in a strong democracy.
Asked what measures would really strengthen democracy in T&T, Meighoo listed separation between the Cabinet and the Parliament and a federal arrangement between Tobago and Trinidad. “A clear split between the executive and the legislature at all levels of government, with different methods of elections and timelines for each House. This is important to keep the executive accountable, especially for its expenditure of public funds, which is pertinent with regard to the budget. Under our current system, there is no proper accountability since the Government sits as a majority in the legislature and approves its own expenditure of funds.”
Ramsamooj similarly focused on monetary matters, calling for audits, campaign finance reform and harsher penalties for political corruption. “Our democracy is evolving according to the needs of the electorate, and patronage, poor representation and mamaguy politics are no longer acceptable,” he said.